Jeri Bunt was hired by WTVT several days prior to their debut on April 1, 1955. Serving mostly behind-the-scenes as a continuity supervisor, secretary, and switchboard operator, Jeri was also called upon to add a little spice to Channel 13 promotional photos, commercials, and programs.
"I did the
pictures for the right price…nothing," laughs Jeri.
"They just dragged me into a room with the film processor, or with a
stack of viewer mail."
Mail Call! Jeri Bunt sorts through contest entries.
A native Floridian
living in the farming community of Wauchula, Jeri joined the Air Force around the time of the Korean
War. Enlisted as a W.A.F. ("Women in Air Force"), Jeri took basic
training in Houston, Texas. Her
duty was on
the flight line with responsibility for ordering airplane replacement parts and
When Jeri's service ended in 1954, she returned to Florida and
financed her education in a Tampa business school through the G.I. Bill. "I was a single mother at the time.
I worked for a shoe company half the day, and went to school the other
half. My landlady sat for my baby boy,
Wayne. I didn't have much of a
In March of 1955
Jeri was tipped off that a broadcaster named Walter Tison was converting a
restaurant on Memorial Drive into a television station and they needed people
fast. She was not attracted by the
thrill of working in the fledgling television industry, but by the possibility of
a permanent job. "I went in the lobby and there was lumber all over the
place," recalls Jeri. "Walt
Tison and Doyle Carlton, one of the former Governors of Florida, were standing
there. Mitch Jackson, one of the
owners of the station said 'Anybody from Wauchula is allright with me.'
I was hired immediately."
The 1955 WTVT production staff. Jeri stands between Walter Rhoads and Monte Gurwit**
The station went on the air April 1st and Jeri was suddenly in the television business. "The first thing I did was in secretarial work in the program department…ordering movies for Monte Gurwit. Monte was businesslike, professional, and came from WSUN-TV in St. Pete. I was Walt Rhoads secretary for a long time. He was very professional and friendly and always knew what he wanted. After production I worked in continuity managing the daily logs that laid out the station's format from minute to minute. I did five books…one with copy for the announcers, one for engineering, the director, stage manager, and the projectionist. They all had to be alike, with the film reel numbers for commercials and programs, the announcer copy, and what the announcer said when we came out of the network."
1956 will bring major changes to Channel 13
Changes were on the
horizon when Channel 13 was sold to the Gaylord Broadcasting company in 1956.
Most people were apprehensive about their jobs, but not Jeri. ”They
didn't bother laying off secretaries. But
there were layoffs in other areas and on some Fridays I'd start to cry about it.
They'd tell me in advance, 'Jeri, don't cry, we've got to let someone
go.' Gaylord was bringing in people
from Oklahoma City."
One of the new
transplants from WKY-TV in Oklahoma City was a young production person named Ken
Smith. "I always liked
Ken," states Jeri, "because he had a great sense of humor.
I knew him for about ten years before we even dated.
At the Channel 13 holiday parties, you usually didn't bring anybody so he
would say 'you want to go together?' That's
how it got started."
As the station grew
and local programming became more prominent, Jeri found herself among a bevy of
classic Tampa Bay area personalities. "Ernie
Lee, Herb and Kay, 'Salty Sol,'…I loved them all.
Mary Ellen was just as friendly as she could be.
Ed Scott was a doll and Red Koch was very funny with a dry sense of
humor…and he was also very shy when he worked at the station.
Buddy Sugg was friendly and was the only one who took the secretaries out
on his boat during the lunch hour. We
still are in touch with our good friend Dick John, who became News Director. When
I went back to the station years later, Roy Leep was the one who gave me a tour.
I can't think of anyone who wasn't nice and friendly, and we were all
just like a family in those days, because there weren't very many working
In the meantime, Channel 13's promotions director Ned Jay would summon the curvy and attractive Jeri to glamorize photos of the new film processor...
...to dress up a publicity shot of the new lobby,
...and to schmooze with on-air talent like Sports Director Guy Bagli.
Then, she was asked
to appear in commercials and on-air. "I
usually didn't speak in commercials because of my very pronounced southern accent," drawls
Jeri. "I did one for Webb's City where I was
washing my hair using a certain brand of shampoo. I did live commercials modeling clothing.
The only fly in
Jeri's ointment was a lack of monetary appreciation. "The station didn't give me any extra money for all
this. One time I was a shopper at a
grocery store and they wanted to pay me by letting me keep the groceries.
Ken said 'No, you have to pay her.'
He got me a week's pay…$50.00."
Jeri moved to North
Carolina in 1961, but returned to Channel 13 a year later and became a switchboard operator.
She departed WTVT for the last time upon accepting a job with Hilton
Advertising in 1964. A few months
later her relationship with Ken Smith became more serious and they were soon married. Jeri attended college to earn a Master's Degree in Teaching
and moved with Ken to Orlando when he took an executive position at WESH-TV.
Jeri taught 4th and 5th grade and retired after 20 years.
In 2000, she returned to college to renew her teaching degree.
Today, Jeri and Ken
have six grandchildren and divide their time between a home outside Orlando and
another in Georgia. She summed up
her time for BIG 13 with these thoughts: "I've
always been a happy person. Never
looked at life in a sad way. Ken
has said that I could have a good time in the middle of the street by myself.
When I was at Channel 13, I think the best time of all there was when we
had the whole TV station go out for picnics and barbeques.
Those were simple days but that's the best memories."
Ken and Jeri Smith today
BIG 13 thanks Jeri,
Channel 13's Cover Girl, for telling us her story.
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